By Craig Robinson
In recent years, the only thing that has changed more than the Iowa weather is Republican leadership in the Iowa Senate. Since Mary Lundby orchestrated a mid-session leadership coup ousting Stewart Iverson in 2006, Republicans have passed the reins of leadership in the chamber four additional times. The latest Republican leader in the Iowa Senate is Bill Dix, who was elected by his peers on Wednesday.
The constant change in leadership for Senate Republicans is one of the reasons why they have failed to gain the majority in the chamber. That’s not to say that Ron Wieck, Paul McKinley, and Jerry Behn are the reason Republicans have failed to win a majority in the chamber, but the constant turnover makes it more difficult to raise funds and build the necessary campaign infrastructure needed to win.
Dix’s ascension to the top spot in the Iowa Senate has been in the works for quite a while. Known for his work ethic and fundraising prowess, Dix was viewed as an eventual leader before he was even elected to the Senate in 2010. While some may have viewed him as being a little too eager to lead, Dix has a skill set that is unmatched by his Republican colleagues. Former Senate Republican leaders were more than capable of leading the chamber during the legislative session, but they failed when it came to orchestrating a campaign to actually claim a majority.
That was never more evident than when Governor Terry Branstad appointed Democrat State Senator Swati Dandekar to the Iowa Utilities Board, causing a special election in Senate District 18 in the fall of 2011. A Republican victory in Senate District 18 would have meant split control of the chamber. A loss meant more of the same from Democrat Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. We lost.
The special election in Senate District 22 was a critical moment for Senate Republicans. It was an all hands on deck moment for the GOP, yet Paul McKinley, the Republican Leader in the senate at that time went on a three-week overseas vacation at the most critical time of the race. If McKinley’s absence wasn’t bad enough, he didn’t have any sort of campaign apparatus in place that the Republican nominee could plug into. McKinley couldn’t provide the Republican candidate with a pollster, media vendor, or even a direct mail vendor.
Realizing the lack of leadership from McKinley, Dix sought to rectify the situation by attempting to oust McKinley from his leadership post. Dix’s move may have been justified, but it ended up being a public relations nightmare. McKinley’s vacation was a pre-planned anniversary trip. Various talking heads and McKinley allies painted Dix in a bad light. McKinley survived the challenge, but he would later resign his post following the unsuccessful special election campaign.
Jerry Behn, not Dix, was selected to lead Republicans in the Iowa Senate following McKinley’s decision to step down. Behn and Dix worked together during the fall on the Republican effort in the senate. Had Republicans won the majority, the thought was that Behn would have been the Majority Leader, and Dix the Senate President. However, some members of the Republican caucus balked at the idea when Behn said that he would be responsible for selecting committee chairs, not Dix.
TheIowaRepublican.com was told that Dix was going to honor the agreement he made with Behn, but others in the caucus were planning to challenge Behn for the top leadership spot. Obviously, some of the sitting senators were caught measuring the drapes before the general election. These revelations shed light on the main problem with Senate Republicans. When it comes to winning a majority, the lack of leadership in the caucus makes it dysfunctional. Instead of pouring every ounce of their energy into winning a majority, they were more concerned with their personal agendas.
Behn sent out a press release on Wednesday saying that he had decided not to seek re-election as Iowa Senate Republican Leader. Behn added, “Our new caucus leadership has my full support, and I plan to work hard to ensure that we are successful in the upcoming legislative sessions and the 2014 election. I look forward to spending more time with my family and farming business and serving the hardworking citizens of Boone, Greene, Hamilton, Story and Webster Counties in my new district.”
In Dix, Republicans now have a leader who can put forth the effort to put together a credible campaign effort. Dix was intimately involved in 2012 effort, but actually having the title of leader will help him recruit candidates, raise the necessary funds, and build relationships around the state. While Dix did those things before, not having the title made it more difficult. Becoming the leader now also allows Dix to begin working with his caucus to shape a Republican vision, which is something that has been lacking for far too long in the Senate.
Even with President Obama’s victory in Iowa, Senate Republicans had an opportunity to win the majority in 2012. However, the Republican dream of a majority was dashed when two incumbents, Merlin Bartz and Shawn Hamerlinck lost their re-election bids. Bartz lost his race by only 120 votes. Had Bartz won that race, the Special Election in Senate District 22 would mean Republicans again would have had a chance for split control of the chamber. The other close race involved Republican challenger Matt Reisetter, who lost to Sen. Jeff Danielson by only 390 votes.
Looking ahead, the 2014 Iowa Senate race doesn’t present the opportunities that 2012 did for Republicans. As we have seen in the last couple of elections, retirements and the political climate can cause things can change very quickly. Even still, with only 25 seats up for re-election, the margin of error will be very small for Dix and his senate caucus.
On the bright side, for the fist time in nearly a decade, Senate Republicans have a leader in place that will have them well prepared for the next election. It might seem like an insignificant thing, but winning doesn’t just happen. You have to work for it. There is little doubt that Dix will be up for the challenge. As he would say, let’s make it happen.
Good luck Senator Dix.
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